Casualty

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

This is normally a joyous day for many around the world to celebrate their Irish heritage, but we can’t forget those lost in the fight for peace and freedom in Ireland. The 20th century was a bloody one for Ireland, and it is only in the past two decades that The Troubles, as they’re known, have blossomed into a lingering peace. Seamus Heaney lived and wrote through the tumultuous post-war period, and while he lived long enough to see the current peace, the bloodshed seeped into his poetry in powerful ways.

Casualty
by Seamus Heaney

I
He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.
Incomprehensible
To him, my other life.
Sometimes, on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.
But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.
                   II
It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.
He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Nightly, naturally
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’
                   III
I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse…
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Slow consolation
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The Screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…
Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.
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Tonight, in Oakland

These introductions are weird, because I don’t always feel qualified to write them. Sometimes I simply find a poem or a poet I want to investigate further, something or someone catching me in that certain way that poem/ts are supposed to catch people. I’ve known of Danez Smith for a little while, but I was not very familiar with his work until very recently, when I picked up his collection Black Movie. I haven’t been through the book yet, but the purchase inspired me to read some of his work online, and “Tonight, in Oakland” is my favorite of what I found.

Tonight, in Oakland
by Danez Smith

I did not come here to sing a blues.
Lately, I open my mouth
& out comes marigolds, yellow plums.
I came to make the sky a garden.
Give me rain or give me honey, dear lord.
The sky has given us no water this year.
I ride my bike to a boy, when I get there
what we make will not be beautiful
or love at all, but it will be deserved.
I’ve started seeking men to wet the harvest.
Come, tonight I declare we must move
instead of pray. Tonight, east of here,
two boys, one dressed in what could be blood
& one dressed in what could be blood
before the wound, meet & mean mug
& God, tonight, let them dance! Tonight,
the bullet does not exist. Tonight, the police
have turned to their God for forgiveness.
Tonight, we bury nothing, we serve a God
with no need for shovels, we serve a God
with a bad hip & a brother in prison.
Tonight, let every man be his own lord.
Let wherever two people stand be a reunion
of ancient lights. Let’s waste the moon’s marble glow
shouting our names to the stars until we are
the stars. O, precious God! O, sweet black town!
I am drunk & I thirst. When I get to the boy
who lets me practice hunger with him
I will not give him the name of your newest ghost
I will give him my body & what he does with it
is none of my business, but I will say look,
 
I made it a whole day, still, no rain
still, I am without exit wound
& he will say Tonight, I want to take you
how the police do, unarmed & sudden
& tonight, when we dream, we dream of dancing
in a city slowly becoming ash.

The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

This week’s poem is the first suggested by a reader. Wendell Berry is a farmer and poet whose interest in the environment seems particularly important at a time when the EPA is under threat. Of Berry, our reader writes, “He’s pretty touted in Christian circles, but I don’t think they really know how rebellious he is, especially about environmental issues. ‘The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer’ helped me out of that toxic Christian subculture.”

The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer
by Wendell Berry

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven's favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth's brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He's dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn't,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don't know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.

February 11th 1990 / Requiem for a Nest

Two poems today, because Wanda Coleman’s work is too good not to celebrate as much as possible. Wanda could write well about any topic, and from any angle, but she often focused on issues of class and race that affected her growing up in Los Angeles. She was an incredible poet, and one I highly recommend to virtually anyone.

The first poem today is “February 11th 1990,” written on the occasion of South African activist and poet Dennis Brutus, a refugee living in America at the time, being “unbanned” from South Africa. The second is “Requiem for a Nest,” a poem that screams Los Angeles to me in a way that is beautiful but dripping with sadness and frustration.

February 11th 1990
by Wanda Coleman

                                          —for Dennis Brutus
This year the leaves turn red green black
freedom colors each leaf
each stitch of grass. I am amazed
at my sweet harvest. The prison door has opened
and a nation’s heart is released. I am full
having spent my greediness in a ritual of joy.

—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—/—

Requiem for a Nest
by Wanda Coleman

the winged thang built her dream palace
amid the fine green eyes of a sheltering bough
she did not know it was urban turf
disguised as serenely delusionally rural
nor did she know the neighborhood was rife
with slant-mawed felines and those long-taloned
swoopers of prey. she was ignorant of the acidity & oil
that slowly polluted the earth, and was never
to detect the serpent coiled one strong limb below
following her nature she flitted and dove
for whatever blades twigs and mud
could be found under the humming blue
and created a hatchery for her spawn
not knowing all were doomed

Power

I’ve been seeing Audre Lorde quotes all over the place lately, and justifiably so. Ms. Lorde wrote a lot of fantastic poems, many of them overtly political and heavy on social morality. Although she died in 1992, so much of her work could have been written specifically for events happening right now, and it’s that sorrowful timelessness that brought me to posting “Power” today.

Power
by Audre Lorde

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
yourself
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

The Bitter River

Having temporarily shelved the massive The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes a few months ago, I finally picked it back up this week. Incredibly, the first poem on the page where I had left off was “The Bitter River,” one of Hughes’s longer and more serious pieces. It’s a poem that’s about both a specific event and the broader African American experience.

It always strikes me how well Hughes is able to marry political and social cries with his usual jazzy sing-song style. All of his poems could easily be set to music, but where a lesser poet might not be able to carry the weight of such topics with such musicality, he does it with ease.

The Bitter River
by Langston Hughes

(Dedicated to the memory of Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, each fourteen years old when lynched together beneath the Shubuta Bridge over the Chicasawhay River in Mississippi, October 12, 1942.)

There is a bitter river
Flowing through the South.
Too long has the taste of its water
Been in my mouth.

There is a bitter river
Dark with filth and mud.

Too long has its evil poison
Poisoned my blood.

I’ve drunk of the bitter river
And its gall coats the red of my tongue,
Mixed with the blood of the lynched boys
From its iron bridge hung,
Mixed with the hopes that are drowned there
In the snake-like hiss of its stream
Where I drank of the bitter river
That strangled my dream:
The book studied-but useless,
Tool handled-but unused,
Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
Ambition battered and bruised.
Oh, water of the bitter river
With your taste of blood and clay,
You reflect no stars by night,
No sun by day.

The bitter river reflects no stars-
It gives back only the glint of steel bars
And dark bitter faces behind steel bars:
The Scottsboro boys behind steel bars,
Lewis Jones behind steel bars,
The voteless share-cropper behind steel bars,
The labor leader behind steel bars,
The soldier thrown from a Jim Crow bus behind steel bars,
The 150 mugger behind steel bars,
The girl who sells her body behind steel bars,
And my grandfather’s back with its ladder of scars
Long ago, long ago-the whip and steel bars –
The bitter river reflects no stars.

“Wait, be patient,” you say.
“Your folks will have a better day.”
But the swirl of the bitter river
Takes your words away.
“Work, education, patience
Will bring a better day-”
The swirl of the bitter river
Carries your “patience” away.
“Disrupter!  Agitator!
Trouble maker!”you say.

The swirl of the bitter river
Sweeps your lies away.
I did not ask for this river
Nor the taste of its bitter brew.
I was given its water
As a gift from you.
Yours has been the power
To force my back to the wall
And make me drink of the bitter cup
Mixed with blood and gall.

You have lynched my comrades
Where the iron bridge crosses the stream,
Underpaid me for my labor,
And spit in the face of my dream.
You forced me to the bitter river
With the hiss of its snake-like song-
Now your words no longer have meaning-
I have drunk at the river too long:
Dreamer of dreams to be broken,
Builder of hopes to be smashed,
Loser from an empty pocket
Of my meagre cash,
Bitter bearer of burdens
And singer of weary song,
I’ve drunk at the bitter river
With its filth and its mud too long.
Tired now of the bitter river,
Tired now of the pat on the back,
Tired now of the steel bars
Because my face is black,
I’m tired of segregation,
Tired of filth and mud,
I’ve drunk of the bitter river
And it’s turned to steel in my blood.

Oh, tragic bitter river
Where the lynched boys hung,
The gall of your bitter water
Coats my tongue.
The blood of your bitter water
For me gives back no stars.
I’m tired of the bitter river!
Tired of the bars!

self-portrait in case of disappearance

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, and I’ve been turning to poetry more and more as both an outlet for and an interpreter of my emotions recently. This short piece by Safia Elhillo perfectly expresses a lingering fear I’ve been feeling.

self-portrait in case of disappearance
by Safia Elhillo

i am afraid that everyone died & it did not fix
the world      this was meant to be the afterlife
to the burning countries our mothers left behind
girls with fathers gone or gone missing
sistered to dark boys marked to die      & our own
bodies scarved & arranged in rows on prayer mats
we go missing too      & who mourns us   who
falls into the gap we leave in the world

The Betrayal

On a day when over 1,000 Yemeni bodega owners in New York City are on strike to protest the president’s immigration ban, here is a gut-wrenching poem by one of Yemen’s best known poets, Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Maqaleh.

The Betrayal
by Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Maqaleh

My faith in poetry is betrayed, as blood,
gushing from the heart of the square,
now masks the face of words

My eyes can no longer
make out the shape of things,
the tone of things

Blood, blood, and more blood

It shrouds my soul, my tongue
it envelopes the horizon
and stains people’s bread,
falling on plates,
coffee cups,
and the eyes of children.

What dark shadow
casts its corpse across our homeland,
in this city made of light?

What day long bloody hours
lurk over the public square,
in a time of darkness,
hunting for young men
at the age of youthful dreams
and the most beautiful vision
of days to come?

What shame it brings
when the light dies,
shot by bullets of blind hatred

I have no words
but pale ones,
and can offer only tears
streaming down my face,
onto the pages

I tell you: this people
has sent many, many heroes,
and offered many, many sacrifices,
along the path to freedom!

Oh Ghaymaan!  Oh Aybaan!
Aren’t you crushed as tears
shed by the street turn to stone,
and the heart of the public square
anguishes at the passing of sons
who sacrifice for the meaning of change?

They bare their chests
and raise their heads high
catching betrayal’s bullets
in a full embrace
of the nation’s precious soil

Tens killed, hundreds injured,
is it enough, oh Ghaymaan,
that your heart weeps,
is it enough, oh Aybaan,
that your soul is touched by tragedy?

Or must we construct
a dam and mountains
made of human beings
to obstruct this savage rising tide,
and stop the blood baths?!

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Since posting “The Next War,” I haven’t been able to get Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” out of my head. It’s actually one of my favorite poems, and very similar in tone, delivery, and message to “The Next War,” which makes sense considering the two poets’ shared experiences with World War I. It’s very sad how nonchalantly the lives of the young are often thrown away by the old, the lives of the poor discarded by the rich, the lives of the underprivileged disregarded by the privileged.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

The Next War

I’ve recently been watching a lot of movies and reading a lot of books that cover preludes to war, and in Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), one of my favorite books of several different categories—graphic novel; poetry collection; war; social commentary—I came across this sorrowful poem by Osbert Sitwell, “The Next War.”

It often seems as though those who make decisions at the top forget the very real people whose lives are affected by those decisions, as Sitwell makes so depressingly clear here.

The Next War
by Osbert Sitwell

The long war had ended.
Its miseries had grown faded.
Deaf men became difficult to talk to,
Heroes became bores.
Those alchemists
Who had converted blood into gold
Had grown elderly.
But they held a meeting,
Saying,
‘We think perhaps we ought
To put up tombs
Or erect altars
To those brave lads
Who were so willingly burnt,
Or blinded,
Or maimed,
Who lost all likeness to a living thing,
Or were blown to bleeding patches of flesh
For our sakes.
It would look well.
Or we might even educate the children.’
But the richest of these wizards
Coughed gently;
And he said:

‘I have always been to the front
-In private enterprise-,
I yield in public spirit
To no man.
I think yours is a very good idea
-A capital idea-
And not too costly . . .
But it seems to me
That the cause for which we fought
Is again endangered.
What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?’

Rushing eagerly into the street,
The kindly old gentlemen cried
To the young:
‘Will you sacrifice
Through your lethargy
What your fathers died to gain ?
The world must be made safe for the young!’
And the children
Went. . . .